NASHVILLE – The Titans face the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night at Nissan Stadium.
Here's a look at six things to watch in the contest:
Titans Not in Uniform
Let's face it – it's a weird week. Thursday night's game doesn't really mean anything – win or lose – for the Titans in their quest to win the AFC South. Because of that, Titans coach Mike Vrabel didn't try and hide the fact he was considering resting some of his starters. Well, we already know Jeffery Simmons, Amani Hooker, Bud Dupree, Nicholas Petit-Frere and Zach Cunningham won't play - they've been ruled out for the contest. Derrick Henry, Denico Autry and Kristian Fulton are doubtful. The Titans want to make sure as many of their key players are healthy and ready to go for the Week 18 matchup in Jacksonville, where the AFC South title will be on the line. A sobering stat: No team in NFL history has gone 0-4 in December and made the playoffs. The Titans would be 0-5 in December with a loss on Thursday night.
As potent as the Cowboys are throwing the football with quarterback Dak Prescott, their rushing offense with running backs Ezekiel Elliott (829 yards, 11 TDs) and Tony Pollard (988 yards, 9 TDs) has been especially productive as well. The Titans are ranked 2nd in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (80.1), and they've been consistently good all season vs the run. But they're banged up at middle linebacker, so youngsters Monty Rice and Jack Gibbens will need to play a big role here.
Reshaped Offensive Line vs Dallas Pass Rush
The Titans will be challenged up front by a Cowboys pass rush that's pretty stout, paced by rusher Micah Parsons, who has 13 of the team's 49 sacks. Once again, the Titans will depend on a new-look offensive line that includes center Corey Levin and guard Jordan Roos. Le'Raven Clark is expected to step in for Petit-Frere at right tackle on Thursday night. Also, left tackle Dennis Daley will need to be good in this one.
Titans receiver Treylon Burks returned to action last week, and he joined fellow rookie Chig Okonkwo and others on Tennessee's offense. The Titans would love to see Burks build some momentum at the end of the season, especially heading into next week. As for Okonkwo, the talented tight end, he's been more involved in the second half of the season and it makes sense for that to continue.
Tennessee's Run Game
With Henry not expected to play, another rookie – Hassan Haskins – figures to get the bulk of the work running the football for the Titans. Haskins has carried the ball just 11 times for 50 yards this season, so this game provides a big chance to prove himself further. Rookie running back Julius Chestnut, who has just five carries for 13 yards, could get some opportunities as well. The Titans need to be able to run the ball to take pressure off their quarterback.
Prescott had season-highs in pass TD (3) and passer rating (156.3) in the team's Week 16 win over the Eagles. Prescott, however, has struggled on downfield passes this season, ranking T-1st in the NFL with 9 such interceptions (Kirk Cousins, Davis Mills), per NextGenStats. Prescott has thrown an INT on 8.2 pct of his attempts of 10+ air yards, the highest rate among qualified QBs (Pickett 2nd at 7.4). Can the Titans force him into some mistakes on Thursday night?